The historiography of 19th and 20th century Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean was traditionally dominated by political and social histories that explore the region’s incorporation into European spheres of influence in the 19th century, and the era of decolonization in the 20th. Beginning in the 1990s, studies in the history of medicine, health, and the environment began to provide a deeper understanding of social history in 19th and early 20th century Egypt.
My work intervenes in a second wave of scholarship in this “medical-environmental turn,” which applies the environmental-medical lens to social history by examining crisis events like epidemics, droughts, and famines. These events are all complex processes, with roots in climate science and epidemiology, whose origins begin long before they are noticeable, and end long after the crisis period has eased. The social, political, and economic circumstances with which they coincide are, themselves, processes; the confluence of these two trajectories forms a social event with implications for multiple areas of research.
My work lies at the intersection of medical, social, and political history. Working across disciplinary, geographic, and temporal boundaries can help social historians like myself locate peasants and illiterate classes in the archive; these collaborative approaches also open Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean to historians of the environment and medicine working in comparative or transnational contexts.
My monograph, Home Front Egypt: Famine, Disease, and Death During the Great War explores the impact of World War I on the Egyptian civilian population, with particular emphasis on the peasantry and urban poor.
The book begins with a discussion of Egyptian public health policies from the establishment of the national health service under Ottoman Viceroy Mehmet Ali in 1821. By the time of the British occupation in 1882, Egypt boasted one of the highest smallpox vaccination rates outside of Europe and maintained a nationwide network of dispensaries and hospitals that guaranteed a supply of quality pharmaceuticals for physicians and patients. Although health services were underfunded during the first three decades of the occupation, the transformation of the Egyptian civilians into consumers of state provided medical services had clearly been achieved, and the continued demand for these services was demonstrated through public protest against the Anglo-Egyptian government’s inaction in addressing outbreaks and epidemics.
Home Front Egypt fills a gap in the scholarship by examining the civilian impact of the war, and by positioning the peasant classes as its primary subject. In subsequent chapters, I use government documents and archival material, published economic and statistical reports, vital statistical data, as well as the English and Arabic language press to demonstrate how the civilian population suffered during the war. I show that requisitioning of foodstuffs, human, and animal labor for the war effort led to scarcity and inflation in the cost of comestibles and other basic supplies, despite government policies theoretically intended to ensure a constant supply at an officially guaranteed price.
I describe the various diseases that appeared in increased numbers during the war, culminating in the “Spanish” influenza, whose deadliest wave hit Egypt between October and December 1918, and killed at least 180,000 people, but is absent from nearly every history of the period. These environmental and medical issues had profound social and political impacts, constituting one of the underlying causes of dissatisfaction with the British administration that led to the widespread participation of the peasantry in the national uprising after the end of the war, in early 1919.
My work in the environmental-medical turn in Egyptian history echoes recent scholarship that explores the experience of the Egyptian underclasses during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Home Front Egypt contributes to this new historiography by exploring the evolving nature of state-citizen relations during World War I (itself an understudied period of Egyptian history) through the lens of both structural violence and what environmental historian Rob Nixon has described as “slow violence,” and articulating the collective response of the peasantry both during the war and its aftermath.
A short piece detailing the primary findings of my dissertation research will appear in an edited volume on food and warfare published by the University of Arkansas press in 2021. I explore the impact of the “Spanish” influenza pandemic in detail, including its implications for the history of early 20th century Egypt, in a forthcoming article in the Journal of World History (tentatively schedule for the April 2021 issue). The dissertation included a lengthy history of public health in Egypt that has been truncated for the book; part of the omitted material—about the British imperial response to the cholera outbreak of 1883—has been published on IslamicLaw Blog (Harvard) and forms the basis of a second article-in-progress. I have also written a short piece about the new insights offered by the medical-environmental turn in Middle Eastern History for History Compass, which should also be published in early 2021.
The environmental destruction caused by World War I and its aftermath in the eastern Mediterranean forms the basis of my next project. The historiography of the war period and the early 20th century tends to reify nations according to their postwar borders (including those of nations that did not yet exist). I will address this lacuna in the next stage of my research in order to find my way out of the historiographical and ontological rut. Transnational history involves movement—of “people, ideas, products, process and patterns that operate over, across, through, beyond, above, under, or in-between polities and societies.”
During my dissertation research, I noted that famine, starvation, disease, and environmental degradation occurred in nearly every country affected by the First World War; in some cases the damage from the war had repercussions lasting into the 1930s.
Crosscurrents and connections in response to such developments make the eastern Mediterranean a particularly ripe region for transnational study. How did mandate powers and newly emerging states of the Levant and Arabian peninsula leverage control over disease and the environment as part of their state building projects? Specialists and policymakers were looking across national boundaries when they formulated their policies, and we do ourselves no favors by imposing such borders upon our own work and sources.
Health and environmental policies had dramatic impacts upon the ways that nations and nations-in-waiting interacted with their own populations, and with each other, and the discipline is finally ready to give such studies due consideration.
 Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier, ‘Introduction: The Professor and the Madman’, in Akire Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier (eds), The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History (London, 2009), p. xviii.